Saturday, December 2, 2017

Brief History of Visigoth Spain

Regions of the Iberian Peninsula during the Visigoth Kingdom
Before the time of Isabella and Ferdinand and before Islamic Spain, Visigoths ruled the Iberian Peninsula.

Roots of Visigoths

Visigoths belonged to the mighty barbarian Goths that toppled down the invincibility of Rome in 410. Barbarians then carved out kingdoms for themselves. After their successful sacking of Rome, Goths too established kingdoms, one particular group that became known as Visigoths called the lands in Southern Gaul (modern day France) and Hispania (modern day Spain) their own under the leadership of Ataulf in 412.

The Visigoths, however, faced numerous rivals in Hispania. The Suebi in the eastern part of the Peninsula and the Vandals in the central lands. Basques also roamed the northern regions. Alans occupied Lusitania (modern day Portugal) and Carthaginiensis. Vestiges of Roman populace also remained in the region of Tarraconensis. In this diverse peninsula the Visigoths had to compete for survival, power, and domination.

King Euric in the
National Library of Spain
In 466, King Euric presided over one of the largest kingdoms in Europe. Then, the Visigoth kingdom controlled much of the Hispania and Gaul and set up its capital in Toulouse. The kingdom although barbarian in roots turned to become preservers of Roman culture as they adapted Roman laws, traditions, and practices sought Hispano-Romans support in manning local administration and the government.

Soon enough, they shared Roman values of order and legalism and developed their own laws like the Codex Euricianus. Written in Latin, it stated the personal law of Visigoths and cemented the absolute power of the Visigoth monarchs.

Thou, Visigoth kings had absolute power, Kings came to power not through heritage but through election by an assembly of Visigoth nobles.

In 507, King Alaric II follow King Euric in enacting law codes. In 506, he implemented the Breviarium Alariciarum (Breviary of Alaric) or the Lex Romana Visigothorum (Roman Law of Visigoths). This Breviary framed itself from the Theodosian Code. The Breviary also unique in its own with its inclusion of commentaries and interpretation of its entries.

During Alaric II’s reign, the Visigoths looked into a major turning point in their history. The Kingdom suddenly faced a tough rival in Gaul in form of the Franks. Frankish King Clovis’ army marched against the Visigoths in 507 and in the Battle of Vouille, King Alaric loss and all their lands north of the Pyrenees, along with their capital in Toulouse, fell to the new Frankish Empire. Ever since then, the Visigoths concentrated their strengths in the Iberian Peninsula.

Visigoth Kingdom of Hispania

After the fall of Toulouse to the Franks, the Visigoths moved to Hispania and established a new capital in Toledo. Still, the Visigoths had a lot of adversaries in the region. As stated before, Suebis, Alans, Vandals, Basque and an emerging aggressive Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantines aspired to reclaim the lands of the Western Roman Empire.

In addition to other barbarian groups, the Hispano-Romans living in Hispania and Visigoths mistrust each other due to religious difference. Visigoths, thou Christians, believed in Arianism which disregarded the Holy Trinity that the Catholic Hispano-Romans followed. 200,000 Visigoths persecuted the 6 million Hispano-Roman. As a result, the Hipano-Romans huge numbers and their call for Byzantine liberation loomed as a threat to the Visigoth’s rule.

Visigoth authority strengthened during the reign of King Leovigild from 568 to 586. This ruthless and energetic ruler asserted Visigoth control over the whole of Peninsula, subduing the Suebi, Alans, and Basque. He also put a stop in the advance of the Byzantines in the South. Luckily for him, the Vandals posed no much threat anymore as they moved to Northern Africa. He also cemented his authority by adopting Roman symbols of rule such as a throne and a crown. During his reign too, the Visigoths pushed strongly the spread of Arianism, forcing Jews and Catholics to convert in threat of pains of slavery.

His conversion policy, however, met strong opposition within his family. During his campaigns to bring down rival powers in the region. His son Hermenegild who converted to Catholicism rebelled and took the city of Seville. His rebellion lasted from 579 to 585, ending only after Leovigild successfully finished his campaign against the Suebi Kingdom of Galicia.

Catholic Visigoths

Following Leovigild’s death in 586, his son Recared got elected by the Visigoth nobles and reigned from 586 to 601. The rebellion of Hermenegild showed the strength of Catholic evangelization in the Peninsula and Recared accepted it and converted to Catholicism in 587. In 589, he supported the convening of the religious synod 3rd Council of Toledo where they denounced Arianism. The decades of mistrust between Visigoths and the large Hispano-Roman people suddenly disappeared, turning them into loyal subjects at the expense of support for a Byzantine invasion.
Conversion of Reccared to Catholicism by Antonio Muñoz Degrain (1888)
Successive Cahtolic Kings strengthened the Visigothic Kingdom keeping internal descent at bay. During the reign of King Swinthila (621 to 631), the last Byzantine fortress in the Iberian Peninsula fell cementing the Visigoths as the preeminent power in the region.

With much of their rivals gone, Visigoth Kings consolidated power. Due to the elective nature of Kingship, factions tried to vie for power thru assassination. Numerous Kings fell to assassin’s blade and became a main issue. Christian bishops helped in making the government stable by practicing the anointment of Kings starting with King Sisenand (r. 631 – 636). In this manner, they made the King a divine authority, hence his assassination a capital sin.

Bishops took an important position in society. Their Council of Toledo began to meet regularly and sometimes voiced concerns to the King through tomus regius. They also began to be involved in the election of Kings, becoming a powerful sector of Visigoth society. But their involvement in politics caused them to be politicized and even lose their independent position to Kings.

Among the ranks of bishop too, scholasticism gave rise to new works. Most importantly, St. Isidore of Seville wrote on the history of the Suebis, Vandals, and Visigoths in Spain as well as the Etymologiae, an encyclopedia regarding classical works from antiquity, a feat important for the preservation of the past in an era of chaos and indifference to ancient learnings.

Roman Culture in Visigoth Spain

Roman culture surprisingly continued through the Visigoths, mainly in government and law. A large Hispano-Roman population contributed to the survival of Roman traditions. Visigoth Kings welcomed the adoption of some traditions too.
During the reign of King Chindasuinth (r. 642 – 653), the Officium Palatinum (Royal Household Office) was established based on Roman practices. It assisted the King in administering the country by using nobles and magnates as staffs rather than slaves or eunuchs.

In 654, King Recceswith (649 – 672) expanded the Breviarium Alariciarum, combining the elements of Roman and Gothic laws.

Decline of Visigoth Spain

The decline of the Visigoth Kingdom of Spain began with the reign of King Wamba (672 – 680). His reign, however, ended badly when his enemies forced him out of the throne and became a monk in the end.

Due to the nature of his rise, King Erwig who plotted Wamba’s demise from power fought to cement his rule through assemblies of nobles, calling 3 large Councils in Toledo. One way to deflect attention, the King presided over stronger persecution of Jews, calling them cancer that had to be wiped out. Persecution of Jews continued with his successors. This led to the resentment of the Jews which later helped in the fall of the Visigoths in the 710.
Umayyad Caliphate in the Mediterranean Sea
On that year, the Visigoth Kingdom descended to civil war. 2 king competed for the throne and the division made the country ripe for conquest of external power. This led to the arrival of Tariq ibn Zayid, the Berber governor of Tangiers of the expanding Islamic Umayyad Empire. Jews welcomed the arrival of Muslims viewing them as better option that the oppressive Visigoths. As a result, within the next decade, the Visigoth Kingdom shrank in face of this new advancing Islamic empire, until their lands covered only the Asturias Mountains. The Visigoth Kingdom only declined and transformed itself to become the Kingdom of Asturias, while the rest of Spain became part of the Muslim Al-Andalus Emirate, later Caliphate.

Summing Up

Visigoth Spain saw the survival of some vestiges of Roman culture – especially in law and government. They also contributed to the enrooting of Catholicism in the Peninsula. Visigoths showed how one small barbarian tribe transformed into kingdoms that gave order even thou briefly or somehow. Although their tradition of elected kings seemed incredibly democratic in an age of dynasties, this became the weakness of the Kingdom to disintegrate and finally fell to the hands of aggressive empire builders. 

See also:


Chapman, Charles. A History of Spain. New York, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1918.

Fouracre, Paul. The New Cambridge Medieval History v. 1. 

General References:
"Euric." In A Dictionary of the Roman Empire. Edited by Matthew Bunson. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

"Wallia" In A Dictionary of the Roman Empire. Edited by Matthew Bunson. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.


O'Callaghan, Joseph et. al. "Spain." In Encyclopedia Britannia. Accessed December 2, 2017. URL:

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